In search of . . . melanoma progression, Craig Joseph Ceol

March 15, 2011

Each Tuesday, the Daily Voice features a first-person narrative from a researcher explaining the science behind a recent grant, and the inspiration or impetus behind becoming a scientist at UMass Medical School. If you know of a researcher you’d like to see profiled, send an e-mail to 

Craig Joseph Ceol, PhD, assistant professor of molecular medicine, talks about his grant, Identifying Events and Genetic Regulators of Melanoma Progression, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, one year, $248,811; recommended for two additional years, $498,000. 


We study how tumors initially form and how they persist. Our work thus far has focused on melanoma, the most aggressive and deadliest skin cancer. Like other cancers, melanoma is caused by an accumulation of gene defects—defects that allow cells to divide without exhaustion and, in advanced disease, to spread and colonize distant sites in the body. By looking for gene defects that endow cancer cells with these properties, we can try to understand how normal cellular processes are corrupted when tumors arise. 

The gene defects we identify may have some benefit in cancer diagnosis and treatment. For example, is a gene defect we identify present in a patient’s tumor and does this knowledge inform the course of therapy that the patient receives? Some of the defects we uncover may turn out to be useful targets of cancer therapy. For example, we recently discovered that a class of enzymes—histone methyltransferases—are overly active in melanomas, which can promote the establishment and aggressiveness of melanomas. A number of biotech companies are currently designing drugs that target histone methyltransferases, and we are curious to see if inhibitors of these enzymes will be effective anti-melanoma therapies. 

I’ve always enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of scientific research and the “eureka moments,” both big and small, that can come from thinking deeply about a problem. Being able to get that satisfaction and, at the same time, do something that can contribute to human health is a big plus. 

As far as some of the factors that brought me to UMMS… Is the quality of the science at this institution high? Check. Will the school thrive in the current economic climate? Check. Is the environment and are the colleagues positive and collaborative? Check. Can you get outstanding people into your lab? Check. Does the school provide the resources necessary to get off the ground and succeed? The track record here is excellent. In my lab, the resources are ample and we’re working hard to make things happen. So, quality science, excellent people and a fantastic upward trajectory are all here. What more could you want? 

It is an extremely exciting time to be in the field of cancer research. The pace at which cancer genes are being discovered is unprecedented. Coupled with the success of therapies designed to target tumor-specific gene defects, this means that there is a bright future in applying personalized medicine to combat cancers. On a day-to-day basis, it’s exciting for me to come into the lab and be part of a vibrant research team. My lab members are great, and many colleagues are doing truly cutting-edge research. There is a palpable sense of momentum on campus and it’s a thrill to be riding this wave.